Young Inupiaq captains provide food for their community

Text by Molly Maqpee Lane, Images by Nathaniel Wilder

Time stands still when you catch a bowhead whale. Meetings are canceled, work is forgotten about, chores go undone, the kids don’t go to school, and sleep is out of the question. 

The only focus is on harvesting the giant mammal. Sometimes it can take hours, sometimes it takes days to put away. It’s such a joyous time that it doesn’t feel like work. Thomas Edison once said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” That is what whaling is all about. 

I am from Point Hope, Alaska. It is the oldest continuously inhabited region in North America. We have always been an Inupiaq subsistence community. Thanksgiving of 2022, my in-laws Jacob and Della Lane Jr. passed down their whaling crew to my husband, Jacob Lane III, and me like a precious heirloom. As new captains, we tried our best to continue in the way we were taught. With respect for the animals, traditions, and most importantly, glory to God. 

Jacob cuts up seal meat for braided seal intestine soup, his favorite dish that Molly
makes. She learned to make it from her mother-in-law, Della.

April 30 was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the wind was calm, and it was a perfect day to catch a whale. I woke up early to cook breakfast for my husband and his guys who were camped out on the ice, just waiting for whales. Whales don’t wait for anyone and always run extremely early in the morning. At 8:20, I sent a text to Jacob to let him know that breakfast was ready and for someone to come pick it up. When I didn’t get a reply, I knew something exciting was happening. My father-in-law and my 13-year-old son, Jacob IV, brought breakfast down.

Molly prepares biscuits to accompany the braided seal intestine soup.

The night prior, Jacob and several of his men had gone out on the ice to camp. He’s been known to camp for days during whaling season. I won’t see him until the weather forces him home. Three hot meals a day are delivered every single day that the men are out. For most meals, I cook for about 10 people along with feeding my kids at home. During this time, all the whalers’ faces turn 10 shades darker. Many have a raccoon tan from wearing sunglasses. 

After my father-in-law and my son left with breakfast, I started washing the dishes. I was listening to worship music and all of a sudden, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. I felt the Holy Spirit and all I wanted to do was praise God and cry. I believe I felt all of this at the same time that my husband was harpooning our first whale. Moments after this, I heard back from him. 

 The quality and character of the surface of the sea ice frequently changes with the
weather conditions. Some years, whaling is slow to start and crew members go out to the ice every day, individually, to watch for the lead to open up and for whales to start passing by

At 8:51 a.m., I received a text from Jacob that we struck a whale and to pray. I knew what this text meant. It meant we couldn’t celebrate yet. We had only struck the whale. It was not a successful catch just yet. With tons of adrenaline running through my veins, I called my mother-in-law and my cooks to let them know of the news and that it was time to prepare and to pray. I started cooking lunch and had my cooks pack totes with the essential cooking items we would need to bring on the ice when the time came. 

 In 2016, Jacob Lane III waited for a whale that was wounded by another crew to surface at the ice edge where it was last seen. It soon appeared, and he was able to harpoon it to complete the kill. 

Jacob later filled in the details for me: That morning at 5:20, after roughly three hours of sleep, he was awoken by his brother-in-law, Tracy Jackson, who had stayed awake all night keeping watch. “It only took me one minute to wake up and be completely dressed and out of the tent,” Jacob said. Jacob, his uncle Clark Lane, and Tracy took a boat ride in his 18-foot Lund to find a whale. Whales were everywhere that morning. “We started chasing right away. We chased big ones and decided not to catch a big one,” Jacob said. Since another crew had caught a whale a couple days before, all of the other crews were in town resting. “We were the only crew out. We could choose a whale we wanted to catch.” They finally found a small enough whale and got close to it two times. After being chased, the whale went under the ice, and they lost it. Soon they found another small whale. “The first time we chased it, Tracy slowed the boat down too fast. We didn’t get close enough. The second time it came up, we passed it,” Jacob said. Jacob read the whale’s behavior and he thought it went under the ice. They thought they’d lost another one. “I said to Tracy, ‘Start driving back to camp slowly.’ As soon as I said that the whale came back up.” When it came up a third time, that’s when they struck gold. “When I harpooned it, the harpoon broke,” Jacob said. “I knew I hit it real good. It started slapping its tail back and forth.” The harpoon tip, which is connected to a bulbous red buoy by a 200-foot rope, disconnects from the harpoon and is lodged into the whale. “We followed the buoy. It unraveled slowly and it went underwater. A minute later, the buoy resurfaced and stayed in one spot.” 

The crew flag that Jacob Lane III’s mother made and used for the crew when her husband ran it. Jacob and Molly continue this tradition

Minutes passed. I carried my phone with me everywhere in the house, anxiously waiting for any updates. Minutes slowly turned into an hour. I’ve learned not to bother my husband with unnecessary texts when he is chasing whales, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I asked for an update. 

“We waited 30 minutes for the whale to come back up,” Jacob said. “After I harpooned it, we started praying and then sent out messages that we struck a whale.” Since the buoy wasn’t going anywhere, Jacob knew the whale wasn’t going anywhere either. He called other crews to come out and help kill the whale. “The whale would resurface and take a breath quickly and stay down for 30-40 minutes. This was not enough time for us to harpoon it again. When the other crews came out, it made it easier. We didn’t know where the whale would come up and the other crews would be in different spots where they could harpoon it.” 

All hands are needed to pull a whale up. Anyone who is on the ice and is able is expected to help. 

At 10:05 a.m., Jacob texted again and said the whale was injured, but it was a strong one and to pray again. My family and I gathered in the house, and we prayed. We prayed to God for a safe and successful harvest of the animal that we all love. We thanked God for his blessings and used our faith to continue our work. With renewed strength, my cooks and I continued working on more food. The minutes crept by. Phone calls were exchanged between the men waiting on the ice and the women in town just hoping someone had some news as to what was going on down in the boat. I kept checking my phone to make sure the volume was all the way up. Another hour passed. This felt like the longest time in my life. 

Jacob III and his crew meet up outside of town to divide shares of maktak after bringing it in from the sea ice. The edge of town provides cleaner snow and clearance from hungry dogs that might have gotten loose in town. 

“It is a little unusual to wait that long to kill a whale,” Jacob later said. “It does happen, but not that often. We waited at a distance because when we harpoon a whale, we let the other crews finish killing the whale.” Finally, Jacob and his guys heard the other crews holler with celebration! The whale finally succumbed and rolled belly up. “All the emotions kicked in then, mostly happiness.” As soon as they heard the joyous shouts, Jacob tried texting home. Cell phone service gets iffy out there, so when that happens, Facebook messenger is the next option. “I couldn’t get through with my texts, so I put my phone away,” Jacob said. “We prayed and blessed the whale and gave it to the Lord. I stood up on the bow and called through Facebook messenger.”

 Finally, Jacob called me at 11:21 and said, “Agvaaqpaŋu! We caught a whale!” With so much joy and tears in everyone’s eyes we called everyone to give an update. 

Jacob then tied the whale and with three boats total, towed the whale to the ice. “I went straight to Dad,” Jacob said. “I gave Dad a hug and thanked him for all the knowledge he taught us on how to be a whaling captain. I thanked him for teaching us how to be humble whalers and thanked him for teaching us right from wrong. I felt really blessed. I felt all the joy in the world because this is our life. All our hunting seasons revolve around this whale.”

As tradition follows, I waited in town for my husband to bring the whale flippers to our house. That is when we can celebrate. When we know, without a doubt, that we caught a whale. This was a special time in our life because it was our first whale. We don’t hunt these giant beauties for glory or for trophy. We hunt these animals to feed others. These whales will feed the entire community all year long. 

Now the real work began. Our entire crew and other crews went out onto the ice to pull up the whale using a pulley system and manpower. All crews work together on every single whale that is landed. We cannot do it alone. Men hold onto the rope that is rigged to a pulley and stretched far out into the ice. These men yell out encouragingly to walk away and keep pulling. Bowheads can measure up to 60 feet and weigh an average of 75 tons.

It takes a community to pull a 30- (or 50-) ton whale up onto the sea ice. All available crews come from up and down the lead to help haul up a whale and hunting won’t resume until it’s on the ice.

Our whale came up fairly easily. It measured 28 feet even, which is a nice, small whale. It only took several hours to butcher. We have a distinct way of cutting up the whale and unwritten rules that go with it. A small piece is cut and boiled out on the ice for the men and women to eat while working tirelessly. I walked around and served the cooked maktak. Maktak is the black skin with blubber attached. Since it was a small whale, the maktak was very soft. The kind of food that melts in your mouth. 

Usually, whales are divided into shares numbered 1-10. The captains’ share is not counted in this. The captains’ share then gets divided for the multiple feasts throughout the year. Our crewmembers also receive a share that is not included in the numbered shares. Crews who touch the whale after it is harpooned determine which they receive. The first crew who touches it, receives number 1 and so on. Since this is our first whale, my husband and I don’t keep any of our share. It is tradition to give away the first animal that a person catches, whether it be their first seal, caribou, ducks, or fish. It’s no different with a whale. 

Every bit of the whale is collected. Nothing is wasted because it is all food. I collected the inside delicacies, which consist of the stomach, kidneys, intestines, heart, and tongue. Those are saved for our three-day whaling feast celebration that always happens in June. Once everything is cut up and bagged, our crewmembers haul the maktak and meat to town. 

This whale only took us the entire day to harvest. We were able to go home and sleep that night. Prior to being a captain, Jacob and his older brother, Ben, were the harpooners for their parents when it was their whaling crew. In 2018, my husband caught a 51-foot bowhead whale for his parents. He called that one a dinosaur. That whale was caught during the day, but our crew had to stay out and awake all night to butcher it. Sleep is both rare and precious this time of the year. We work until the job is completed, regardless of how tired we are. We work for the people, not ourselves. 

Jacob Lane III cuts the whale flippers off of the whale he harpooned this year with his crew. The flippers were put on a sled and pulled into town to his house where his wife, Molly, was. But first, they stopped to ring the bell in the center of town to let everyone know that a whale had been caught.

This whaling season was so special because four out of the nine whales that were caught were from crews that caught their first whale. The rules are different for captains who catch their first whale. Not only do we not get to keep our share, but elderly people can come to each of our houses and ask for anything they want. Most people ask for materials, furs, or kitchenware. Some people have even asked for expensive vehicles and most of the time, they receive it. Someone asked my husband for a rifle and he happily obliged. 

Molly Lane and her husband, Jacob III, with their son Suluk (age two) outside their home in Point Hope.

Whaling in our community brings us together. We work together in all aspects. We have so much respect for these giants because they feed us. My husband and I have both learned so much about being on a whaling crew, but it is a different feeling being a captain. It is an honor and a privilege. I believe this is what we are meant to do. To feed others. “Catching a whale is a different kind of feeling,” Jacob said. “It feeds our community and our community is behind us. The whale is why we have a whaling feast, a Thanksgiving feast, and a Christmas feast. You feel like you’re on top of the world.”  

Molly Maqpee Lane is a freelance journalist and school librarian. She lives in Point Hope with her husband and five children. She loves participating in subsistence activities with her family.

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